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The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (15th Installment)

July 20, 2018 01:37AM
PART SIXTEEN

The knocker had been removed from the front door of Mrs. Bingley’s townhouse to discourage callers the day following the Earl’s ball, but the mistress had left strict instructions that Mr. O’Brian was expected, and that, if he called, he was to be admitted.

It was close to four in the afternoon, past the normal hours for “morning calls,” when a knock was heard at the door. The footman on duty opened it to find O’Brian, carrying some sort of wooden case, similar to a portable desk, but a bit larger, on the other side of the entryway, holding a calling card.

“Afternoon,” said the tall American, smiling. “I know it’s past the regular hour, but I thought Mrs. Bingley would need the extra time to rest up after last night’s exertions. I see the knocker’s been removed. Would you please take my card, and tell Mrs. Bingley I was by when she’s not indisposed?”

“Please step inside, sir,” said the servant. “Though Mrs. Bingley did not wish to receive callers today, she was very definite that you were to be admitted if you stopped by. She is indisposed at the moment, but I’ll make sure she is notified of your being here. It shouldn’t be more than five or ten minutes.”

“Excellent,” said O’Brian. “If Mr. Desmond is available, would it be possible for me to speak to him for a few minutes until Mrs. Bingley’s available?”

“I will get him now, sir,” was the reply. “If you would like to wait in the late master’s study.”

*

Thaddeus Desmond, who had started in service to the late master as his valet when Mr. Bingley just a lad, had been promoted to butler upon his employer’s marriage to the former Miss Bennet.

“Hate to lose you as a valet, Des,” he had said, “but I need someone running my homes who knows what he’s doing. You’ll have an assistant at both Kimberton and the townhouse who’ll act in your stead, but you’ll follow the family, if that’s acceptable to you.”

He approached the study, a room unused since the young master’s death, knocked on the frame of the partially opened door, and stepped, in.

“Ah, Mr. Desmond,” said O’Brian, turning toward him with his hand outstretched.

Desmond was not altogether comfortable with the American’s easy informality, so he hesitated for just a moment before taking the proffered hand and shaking it.

“Mr. Desmond,” said O’Brian. “I get the impression that you don’t entirely approve of my sense of American egalitarianism. Nevertheless, I wonder if you’d unbend enough to have a drink with me.”

With that, he opened the case he had been carrying, took out a smallish bottle of what looked to be a red wine, and a couple of glasses.

“If that is your wish, sir,” the butler replied.

O’Brian poured a small amount of the liquid into both glasses, saying, “It’s a port from California, where my mother was born.”

He handed one to the butler, picked up the other, raised it and said, “With your permission, Mr. Desmond, to the memory, and the happy repose of the soul, of your late employer, Mr. Bingley.”

“A sentiment I’m happy to drink to, sir,” said Desmond, clinking glasses with the American, then raising his to his lips.

“Mr. Desmond, Mrs. Bingley tells me you were with the late Mr. Bingley since he was in school.”

“His father hired me as his valet shortly before his own death, sir. Young Mr. Bingley was only 15 at the time.”

“And I imagine that, to a degree, he looked to you as a sort of father figure after his own dad passed.”

“I wouldn’t presume to say that, sir. Though it’s possible he did look to me as a guide. Perhaps Mentor to his Telemachus. But never Odysseus.”

O’Brian smiled broadly as he took a sip.

“A devotee of the classics,” he said. “Which brings me to my point. It occurred to me that there was one person whose approval I had not yet obtained for my courtship of your mistress. Do you regard me as a legitimate suitor, Mr. Desmond, or do regard me in much the same way Mentor regarded the dozens of interlopers who comprised the Proci. As a trespasser.”

“I . . . cannot truly say, sir. I know you rescued her from those road agents. I know that Mrs. Bingley seems happier than she has been since her husband’s accident. And I know the children seem to like you very much. All of that is in your favor. But there is the matter of , , , ”

When Demond paused, O’Brian filled in the rest.

“My income.”

“I should not like Mrs. Bingley to be yoked for life to a fortune hunter.”

“Well, that’s an understandable misgiving. So let me reassure you. I’m not in Mrs. Bingley’s league . . . uh, level, that is, in terms of wealth, but I’m neither in need nor in debt. I haven’t actually proposed yet, and, when I do, she might turn me down. But if this ends in a wedding, I’ll continue to support myself, and help support the children, and any additional ones that come along. What’s hers’ll remain hers. That being the case, can you give me your approval? At least your conditional approval?”

“I . . . I believe I can, sir,” replied Desmond. “Your making a point of talking to a servant about this personally suggests that you have the best interests of the lady, and her children, at heart.”

“Not to a servant,” said O’Brian. “To a trusted friend. Whose trust I hope someday to gain.”

There was a knock on the door. When prompted, a footman entered to inform O’Brian that Mrs. Bingley was waiting for him in the front parlor.

O’Brian shook hands with Desmond again and said, “Thanks for your time, Mr. Desmond. I appreciate your frankness.”

With that, he picked up the wooden carrying case and left the study.

*

Jane turned and smiled as Michael O’Brian entered the parlor.

“I know it’s late to be making calls,” he said, “but, after such a long night, I thought you’d need the rest. I didn’t come late to troll for a dinner invitation, but I’ll certainly accept it if it’s forthcoming.”

“Well, of course, you shall stay for dinner, Michael,” said Jane. “The children would never forgive me if I let you eat anywhere but here.”

“I happily accept,” he replied. With that he set the set the wooden case on a table, and opened it.

“Jane, the time has come to reveal the last of the reasons you should consider breaking off our courtship. And it’s a big one. Will the servants leave us alone with the door closed?”

“Certainly.”

“Will you make sure the curtains are completely closed?”

She went to the windows, and closed the curtains, allowing only a little ambient light into the room.

“Good. Telling you everything you need to know is going to take awhile, and, after some consideration, I’ve decided the best thing to do isn’t to tell you, it’s to show you.”

“Show me?”

“That’s right.”

With that, he removed a gray rectangular object from the case, one that appeared to be metallic. Jane had never quite seen anything quite like it. Almost flat, it looked somewhat like a smaller carrying case then the wooden one from which it had been taken. This impression was strengthened when Michael opened it. What seemed to be the lid remained attached to one of the sides, as though on a hinge of some kind.

“Come on over here, and take a look,” he said.

She stepped over to where Michael, now seated, was bent over the gray object on the table.

It was the oddest thing she had ever seen, and what purpose it might have she could not even begin to imagine. What seemed to be the lid, had some sort of glass pane, so that the metallic part appeared to be a frame. The bottom part was covered with four rows of what looked like buttons, with numbers embossed on the buttons on the top row, and letters embossed, though not in alphabetical order, on the next three.

Michael turned to her and said, “Jane, what you’re about to find out about me, and what you’re about to see . . . well, you’re going to find it absolutely unbelievable and probably frightening, but I promise you no harm will come to you. I’m going to ask you to promise me two things. First, trust me. What you don’t understand will be explained. Second, you must never tell anyone about what you’re going to see. Not your sister. Not your folks. Not the kids. No one. I know that’s a lot to accept, but I can’t show you what I’m about to show you without that promise. And I can’t move forward with you, if you don’t know everything there is to know about me. And this is the only way to reveal this last secret.”

She looked into the kind eyes of this man she had, for she could now admit it to herself, come to love. And she knew, beyond reason, that she could trust him. And that he was about to trust her with a secret greater than any with which she had ever been entrusted by anyone else.

“I promise, Michael,” she said.

With that, he pressed his thumb down on a button well to the right of the four rows, and the glass plate seemed to light up, as though a flame was burning behind it. Yet the light was general, and spread equally across the plate, rather than concentrating the light where the flame was. Then he moved his hands across the rows of buttons with the letters and numbers on them. On the glass plate, the words, “LIVING ROOM, 10103 COLLEGE WAY SOUTH, APARTMENT 203, LARGO, PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, MARYLAND, 20774-0901, UNITED STATES, 12 MAY 2017, 1615 HOURS. She could not imagine why today’s date appeared on the glass plate with the number two thousand and eighteen. Had he pushed the wrong buttons for the year?

When he was finished, he pressed a button to the right of the third row down, larger then the others, on which the word “ENTER” was embossed.

And then Michael’s prediction proved absolutely true, for she could not believe what she saw.

A huge oval shaped light, as big as a doorway, suddenly appeared and seemed to hover in the middle of the parlor. In the next few seconds what appeared to be a picture of a room appeared in the oval. Suddenly a woman stepped into the picture. She was moving within the picture that had appeared in the light that hovered in the air!

And if that wasn’t enough, she seemed to look through the same oval, and when she saw Michael, she actually spoke!

“Hi, Mike! You ready to make the trip.”

“Why don’t you step in here?” answered Michael. “Then Jane can see how it’s done.”

“OK.”

Jane was speechless as the woman stepped through the oval and into her parlor. The first thing she noticed about her was that she was a Negro. Or was the correct term “Negress” when referring to a woman? Jane had seen few persons of her race in her life, and virtually all of those she had seen had been here in London. Some had been domestic servants. A few slaves from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean. Jane knew that Michael’s home state, Maryland, was a slave state, but Michael had already assured her that he found the practice repugnant, and owned no slaves.

The second thing she noticed was that she was tall, and rather striking looking, even beautiful in an exotic way. Her skin was lighter-colored than other Negroes she had seen. Her hair was worn shoulder length. She had not thought that Negroes had straight hair, but perhaps that was not true for all. Her eyes were intelligent and quite lovely.

She was wearing what struck her as very odd, and rather scandalous clothes. A buttoned-up blouse, light blue, but rather than wearing a proper jumper dress over it, she was wearing trousers! Made of some sort of darkish blue, canvas-like material. Her shoes were flat-soled, and only extended to the bottom of her ankles.

Jane had barely managed to process all this when the Negro woman stuck out her hand and said, “You must be Mrs. Bingley. Mike sure wasn’t kidding. You’re one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen. My name’s Ada Couzzins.”

“You are not a slave, are you?” said Jane as she shook hands with the woman. “Michael assured me he did not own slaves.”

She chuckled, and said, “No, I’m not a slave, and certainly not Mike’s. We work together.”

“Ada’s a Deputy US Marshal, like me,” said Michael.

“Surely not!” said Jane, her eyes widening.

“You don’t think a black person can be a law officer?” said Miss (was she a “Miss”) Couzzins.

“I didn’t know a woman could be a law officer,” replied Jane.

“Yeah, I guess that is quite an adjustment,” she said, chuckling.

“Ada’s been taking care of my place while I’m on duty here in England,” said Michael. “Ada take her over and show her the condo.”

“C’mon, Mrs. Bingley,” she said, taking her by the hand. “Just a short step. Nothing to it.”

And, as easily as that, she led Jane through the mysterious floating portal and right into the room pictured on the other side. Michael followed right after them, taking the metallic object, and its wooden case with them. He turned toward the portal, which now seemed to Jane to be a picture of her parlor, tapped a few more buttons with his fingers, and the portal closed.

Jane looked around. It appeared to be a smallish parlor, with a rug that extended across the entire floor and seemed to be nailed down. There was a couch and a chair and ottoman, odd-looking but they appeared to be quite comfortable. A table in front of the couch, another next to the chair with a lamp of some kind on it. There was a covering over the lamp that diffused the light, but it seemed to made of cloth. Surely not, for that would put them at risk of a fire. There was a stand of some kind against the wall opposite the couch that had a huge glass-like plate, similar to the one on the metallic object that Michael seemed to use to open and close the portal, but much bigger, There was a counter extending from the wall on the other side of the room that seemed to be divide the space. On the other side of the counter, on an uncarpeted floor, was a dining table and chairs, several cupboards, and several large metal objects, one of which was waste high and somehow put Jane in mine of a stove, and the other of which was over six feet tall and nearly four feet wide and seemed to hum for some odd reason.

“Ain’t much,” said Michael, “but, it’s home.”

“Home?”

“My home in America.”

“In America? Michael, where are we?”

“We’re in Largo, an unincorporated suburban community in Prince George's County, Maryland, just a short distance away from Washington, D.C., the capital city of the United States. But where we are isn’t nearly as important as when we are.”

“When we are?”

“We just left on the 12th of May, 1817. And we arrived, seconds later, on the 12th of May, 2017. Welcome to the 21st Century, Jane.”

(TO BE CONTINUED)
SubjectAuthorPosted

The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (15th Installment)

Jim D.July 20, 2018 01:37AM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (15th Installment)

Shannon KJuly 20, 2018 03:27AM



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